The state-of-the-art Elbphilharmonie concert hall may be the buzziest venue in Hamburg—but the city’s long musical history means there’s something for everyone, from the stately opera houses to gritty Beatles-era rock clubs.
Music surrounds Hamburg visitors from the first moment they step out of the Hauptbahnhof, the city’s main train station. Buskers serenade passers-by with the latest German pop songs and American rock classics. In the nearby Reeperbahn district, live hip-hop, electronic dance music (EDM), and rock ’n’ roll echo down its neon-lit streets, while just over a mile away, the city’s three professional orchestras thrill audiences in Hamburg’s latest, and arguably greatest, new music venue, the Elbphilharmonie.
But the Elbphilharmonie, which opened in 2017, is just the latest in Hamburg’s list of musical bonafides (and its shows are often sold out). The city’s musical history stretches back to the 17th century, when wealthy shipping barons offered patronage to young composers and the city’s first opera house was established. Over the years, music has remained entrenched in Hamburg’s social scene, even as the soundtrack has continued to evolve with every new type of popular music. Bottom line: If you don’t catch a show here, you’re seriously missing out. Here are a few spots where you can find whatever kind of music strikes a chord with you.
Casual Classical for the Masses at the Elbphilharmonie
How seriously does Hamburg take music? Three professional orchestras call the city home, performing in the gorgeous $930-million glass-and-brick Elbphilharmonie concert hall designed by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. The modern landmark opened in January 2017, and it is as much an acoustical marvel as it is an architectural one. Inside, the concert hall was designed to be as sonically perfect as possible—a massive cone sits above the hall, reflecting the sound back onto the crowd, and the walls are made of specially indented gypsum fiber panels that better conduct and reflect sound. Even the 2,100 seats were selected based on acoustics; rather than fabric, which soaks up too much of the music, the chairs are made of plastic.
During a recent visit to the city, I caught a beautiful rendition of “The Rite of Spring,” performed by the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra under the masterful direction of conductor Krzysztof Urbanski. As luck would have it, I met Urbanski on my flight home to Indianapolis (where he works as the conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra) and had the chance to ask him how he liked the new venue. He admitted the acoustics were almost too perfect, as any wrong note would be immediately noticeable to the audience. If so, the orchestra must have performed flawlessly at the performance I attended.
Tickets for the Elbphilharmonie can sell for as little as 10 euro (about US$12), but if you’re serious about attending a concert here, be sure to buy them early. More than 30,000 tickets for the venue’s first season sold out in under 30 minutes. Even if you’re not knowledgeable about classical music, it’s worth a visit; in addition to standard classical performances, the venue also hosts “Concerts for Hamburg,” inexpensive one-hour concerts for classical-curious fans.
Before the Beatles became worldwide sensations, they were just a bunch of Liverpool teenagers trying to make it as a band by playing clubs in Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s famed entertainment district. With the noticeable exception of the Star Club, which burned down decades ago, visitors can still visit the Indra Club, Kaiserkeller, and several other bars John, Paul, George, and original bandmates Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe played between 1960 and 1962. (The band would meet eventual drummer Ringo Starr at the Kaiserkeller, where he was playing with the Hurricanes.) Strike all the Beatles’ greatest Hamburg hits on a fun tour with Stefanie Hempel, an accomplished folk singer in her own right.
While those clubs are justifiably proud of their Fab Four roots, these days you’ll find up-and-coming musical acts, rap superstars like Mos Def, or metal bands like Agnostic Front gracing their stages. This makes for an interesting mix of visitors walking the streets; middle-aged tourists on a Beatles pilgrimage rub elbows with Hamburg youth on their way to see a friend’s band. Additionally, each year in late September, more than 500 bands of internationally renowned musicians play the Reeperbahn Festival, the European equivalent of South by Southwest.
At Home With Hamburg’s Hipsters in Schanzenviertel
Over the past decade, Hamburg’s musical movers and shakers have transformed the Schanzenviertel district near St. Pauli into a hip counterculture center. At least once a month, local DJs spin a unique fusion of classical and electronic dance music at the record shop Hanseplatte—roughly translated to “music from here.” The shop is located in a slaughterhouse-turned-co-op and focuses exclusively on Hamburg artists and music labels.
You can find other record shops on virtually every graffiti-tagged block of the Schanzenviertel hawking an eclectic mix of new and used vinyl. Looking for obscure European disco, American funk, or a forgotten David Bowie pressing? You’ll find it here.
Visiting Hamburg’s Famed Opera House
The Hamburg State Opera, headed by general music director Kent Nagano and artistic director Georges Delnon, is one of the most highly regarded companies in Europe. The city’s iconic opera house was built in 1827, redecorated near the turn of the 20th century, then almost completely destroyed during World War II. The 1,700-seat facility was reborn a decade later, with a gorgeous glass facade that merges the old and new. While the opera remains a fairly fancy affair, hosting greats like Placido Domingo and American soprano Sara Jakubiak, tickets started at a staggeringly low 5 euro for performances of Carmen and Tosca earlier this year.
History Lessons in the Composers Quarter
Hamburg’s rich musical history always deserves revisiting, so be sure to visit the KomponistenQuartier (Composers Quarter). Some of the greatest creators of classical music have called Hamburg home over the centuries, including Johannes Brahms, composer of symphonies and his renowned lullaby. The Brahms Museum is starting to show its age (it opened in 1971), but there are plenty of interesting items to see, including a piano once played by Brahms. A few doors down, a new museum dedicated to Gustav Mahler and other, lesser-known composers is an audiovisual marvel with several interactive exhibits. Listen to some of the composers’ most famous works, while checking out the detailed exhibits. Visitors in the neighborhood run the gamut from school field trips to older tourists on classical-music quests, but the museums are rarely crowded.